Not your average travel blog
Before we reached the lion’s den we passed Malawi’s largest farmed area of rubber trees. Tapped, much like maple trees for their syrup, the rubber trees contribute to a healthy list of Malawian exports. The processing plant is a privatised, Indian-run establishment and looks like a sturdy and huge, dust-covered corrugated fort. I imagine it’s run by some sort of white-suited Bond villain, who only drinks ice cold creme de menthe and takes his pet iguana for walks around his shady rubber plants. In reality, Bond baddie boss or not, rubber production and export is a beating heart in the Malawian economy. It’s possibly the most “organised” and neat looking legal farm I’ve seen in the entire country and apart from maybe a tobacco farm or two, it must be the largest. Other notable farms that contribute to the nation’s economy include tea, mango, coffee, avocado, sugar, and groundnuts (peanuts). There may or may not be other, fairly well organised plantations hidden in the hills of the this nation and even though the marijuana farms are frowned upon, they provide a very large portion of Malawians (and tourists) with an affordable recreational drug. Like most nations, it’s common in all economic and social classes. Indeed it is illegal, but (apparently) only severely punished if you’re caught breaking other laws whilst intoxicated with it. Having said that, I would not advise anyone to walk through town, flaunting a fat doobie alongside your cornetto. As with all developing countries on earth, Malawi is not without its successful economic sectors. It’s also no surprise that it has a thriving drugs trade.
Malawi is dependant almost solely on just one food product – maize. The corn-style flour is made into a mashed potato-style substance called nsima and is the staple food source in most Malawian meals. As well as maize, cassava plants are grown all over the country (often in peoples gardens and in small patches in each village). Washed of its toxins and stinking worse than a rotting snake in a steam room, the drying roots fill the nostrils with their street-side stench – something that’s just part of life here. Once cleaned and dried, it quickly loses its odour and is perfectly safe to eat.
Malawi doesn’t appear hungry or starving, but it is frustratingly limited in its diet. Malawians eat nsima in nearly every meal. It fills bellies, but the simplicity and importance of adding vital nutrients or vitamins from fish, fruit or vegetables is often overlooked (or unaffordable). There is diversity in people’s diets with a few gluts of fresh produce a year, particular in the mango, watermelon, avocado and pumpkin seasons. However nsima dominates the country’s consumption with the government subsidising the maize crop. It may not be a war-riddled country with poverty thrown upon it, but it is most definitely in the third world and it fights hard to survive year on year. With frequent floods and droughts, the government’s stores are regularly distributed every few years. Farming methods haven’t quite caught up to modern day techniques and the population avoids starvation relatively regularly (although sometimes it’s a little too close for comfort). Developments of the population’s diet, as well as the amounts required to feed everyone, still have a long way to go.
There definitely seems to be an unfortunate lean away from nutritional education which stifles people to consume a balanced diet, particularly in rural locations. Starvation doesn’t appear to be a huge issue, however malnutrition has most definitely set up camp.
Unfortunately, most of the Malawian produce, for example the mangoes in October to January, (just before the heavy rains begin) are worth more to export than they are to fill many people with required nutrients. It may be an extra jab at another failing governing system, but they make a lot of money from exporting most of their produce and in many cases, it’s hard to see that money trickle back to the locals who farm it. Instead of lining our mango-style cocktails in the west, it might be put to better use if it was to vitalise the diet of the population at home. It’s a hard habit, or even assumed-positive economical practice to break. Mango farmers aren’t to blame. Indeed most mango production contributes hugely to the economy, provides vital jobs for many natives, brings communities together for work and relations, and undoubtedly contributes to the diet of those fortunate enough to be either in the vicinity of, or the wealth bracket to afford the benefits of the fruit in their diet. However, the same can’t be said for the tobacco farms, and since the drop in world tobacco prices, Malawi has been hit hard. Tea is Malawi’s second largest cash crop, and there are also diversifications into extensive coffee farming, ground nuts, sugar, pumpkin, and citrus. Overall however, more could be done to diversify the nation’s nutritional requirements, and maybe some of the benefits of being able to grow such wonderful produce should stay closer to home. To go off on a tangent and to throw my slightly radical, nutritional interest into the mix, I sadly don’t see bugs on any menus as protein supplements, nor are there any attempts (because of global and conservationist pressures) to legalise any kind of sustainable, subsistent, bush meat consumption.
On the whole, Malawi has many fertile areas, but as proven with many troubled and difficult to farm southern African territories, agriculture is problematic. Rice, coffee, tea, fruit and vegetables, and even cocoa are grown here, but locals very rarely indulge. You can get plenty of western potatoes and bread, along with tinned foods, spreads, cereals, meat products, and snacks to eat while you watch your downloaded movies which people travel with. There are plenty of decent restaurants here selling pizza, Indian curry, BBQ items, burgers, fish dishes etc, but Malawians simply don’t enjoy or much care for western food. Even though it is seen as a strange (and relatively expensive) luxury, every Malawian who has attempted to try a western food product in front of me has instantly said they would prefer to eat Nsima. When the Malawian chefs cook western food in the restaurant kitchens for us tourists, instead of throwing a few extra chips in or eating a few beans, they simply make up huge batches of nsima for themselves. It maybe a sweeping statement, but the majority of them don’t like our tastes. Maybe they have extra sensitive tastebuds, but in truth, nsima fills them up. Its cheaper, easier to grow, and available everywhere.
Let’s not forget fish! Lake Malawi is (sorry, was) a veritable fresh water, smorgasbord. It still supplies the nation with daily hauls that put the Deadliest Catch to shame. Instead of sailing the giant, net-trawling or pot-dropping vessels that endure the Arctic seas; the fishermen here paddle miles out onto the lake in their dugout canoes. Each is made from a chosen, hollowed-out tree trunk. They’re cumbersome at best and extremely heavy, but the fishermen make it look easy as they navigate them with grace, strength, and surprising manoeuvrability. They fish for their chamba and butterfish with hand lines…occasionally landing a huge catfish which they straddle in their canoe like a wet horse, before delivering them to shore.
Usipa are small, white bait-esque fish, caught en mass, mostly at night with lamps hanging on the side of the canoes to attract the small morsels. They are then dried in the sun. They are rehydrated in stews or soups or even eaten like salted French fries. They are a great source of protein. Catfish, butterfish and chamba are also commonly eaten by locals, but they are worth more when sold to restaurants. People here pocket the cash and simply purchase more maize.
The fish have been existential in the survival of the country and are now more pivotal than ever in deciding how Malawi flourishes. The fish aren’t only consumed. Lake Malawi is the only home in the world to the thousands of unique Cichlid species that live in it. It’s a “colourful-kaleidoscopal” spectacle to behold and will undoubtedly continue to butter up Malawi’s economy by drawing in scientists and tourists from the around globe (if the dormant oil reserves remain below the lake – but that’s an entirely different issue).
Fish in the lakeshore homes and chicken or goat away from the water, now tends to be where the nation finds its limited protein. With global pressures to resist wild bush meat as a source of food, it is mostly illegal to kill wild animals in many places on the continent. The problem however, is western protein substitutes for bush meat just haven’t been proven to be successful. There are obviously cultural differences which make communications and compromises difficult, but the pressing conservation obligations to avoid eating elephant are garnished and sauced with the climate, the terroir, and the extreme conditions that our western crops and creatures don’t have to contend with. The addition of organisations benefitting from exporting any kind of crop which is successfully grown (instead of using it to “nutritionalise” the natives) only compounds the problem. Cultivating protein supplements (aside from bush meat) in Southern Africa has not been terribly successful. Cows just don’t mix well with lions. Goats don’t produce enough milk. Growing seasons and conditions are extremely short and dry. Fish stocks are dwindling, etc etc etc. The only way to really change the nutritional problems of a country is to tackle from both ends of the demographic and the geographic spectrums. Huge issues need to be assessed and addressed such as population, education, health and the economy. However nothing will likely change unless there is an eager approach on a localised and case-to-case level as well. The north has different problems to the south, the rural communities have very different problems to those living in the cities. Access to certain nutrition and the logistical issues to get around varies vastly across the country. Above all, simply dishing out government stores every time there is a problem isn’t a long term solution. Having knowledge of, and access to a varied diet are starting points but as we all know, these issues in southern Africa aren’t going to go away over night.
As much as Malawi is dependent on one sole food source (nsima), it has also done a deal with the devil and given Calsberg the entire market share of its beer sales. That’s right! As far as beer goes, the Carlsberg brand is (legally) the only one you can purchase in the country. There are obviously other beverage choices from around the world which contain alcohol. However there is a Malawian, moonshine-style miniatures range of gin, vodka and whiskey….all of which are made from sugar cane – non of which either resemble or are actually called rum! Put simply, these can only be described as “toxic”….so it’s unsurprising that they are popular. Water them down and mix them, artisan-style, with some pineapple fizz and low and behold, you’ll soon find that you do indeed have a Malawian uncle called Bob. If you sleep near the lake shore and are woken by rowdiness on the beach, you’ll be aware of two things prior to the sun coming up. The fishermen had a good shift, and like loud, slurring cockerels, are now celebrating with the sugar cane liquids which have rendered them into failing and flailing Barry White impersonators. At least you’ll have fresh fish for lunch.
Without delving deep into the population growth of the continent, or the trade politics of a nation, it’s fair to say that the dwindling resources and problematic protein substitution efforts need to be addressed urgently. It’s is never a quick or simple fix to feed a country and as much as it has taken decades to bring ourselves into such trying times, it will undoubtedly take generations to (hopefully) pull through it. Sadly, governments the world over rarely look to make changes for any time beyond their term, and this is very evident in Malawi.
While experiencing the lifestyle here and integrating the little that I have so far, it is hard to morally exist between the comparable world of the wasteful west and a third world nation which continues to try and follow our example….plunging themselves into further wealth disparity and towards a mirror which they want to look into to see western lifestyles staring back. It’s hard to inform someone who only sees the possibilities to indulge as the western world does, that they do have the resources and the ability to one day, do it better.